Aquinas: On Creation; General Update

So I’ve just chugged through Aquinas on creation – I was hoping to write on more from it, uh, but it’s really pretty straightforward. It’s a reading of Genesis & the creation story, and it kinda goes through the implications of different things being created on different days. I wanted to quickly summarise it in terms of the creation/evolution arguments, which I usually try and stay away from (because they’re stupid), but it’s worth sort of checking in briefly and even just noting where Aquinas sits in regard to those debates. There’s also a general update on the state of the blog (or this half of it, anyway), and where we’re going in the future. 

So first I should note that I’m probably going to move on from Aquinas pretty soon. I’ve been at it for a while, and I’m really enjoying it, but I kinda want a change of pace – even just for the sake of variety on the blog. I’m hoping to get back to Calvin, or maybe start up some Luther or something. Generally speaking, I want to work through a bunch of big historical names and then move towards some more contemporary stuff – Barth, Bultmann, Niebhur and Tillich, uh, more Moltmann, Thomas Merton – there’s a whole bunch of people I want to get into. So! The plan is to finish the Prima Pars, and then move on to something else. I’ll come back to Aquinas in a year or two, but I want to keep relatively mobile for now.

Plus the end of the Pars is a good stopping point, because it’s roughly a quarter of the way through the Summa. If I look back, I had eighteen posts on Augustine, I think, and so far we’re up to 25 for Aquinas, including this post. That’s – shit, that’s about six months’ worth. So yeah: time to move on. I’ve just finished reading Question 74 today – it’s the end of the cosmogony questions – and I’ll be moving onto Aquinas on humanity next. Our target is Q119 – so we’re really still only two-thirds of the way through. There might be as many as another twelve or so posts coming – and again, that’s just the first part of four for the Summa as a whole. Assuming the rate of posting remains relatively constant, we could be looking at as many as a hundred and forty posts just on the Summa. At one post a week, that’s nearly three years’ worth of content. And I do love Aquinas, but I’m not spending the next three years – well, two and a half, say – on the Summa. Expect a change over the next few months.

Of course I’ll still try and mix it up a bit until then – so three out of four weeks you typically get Aquinas, and then on the fourth I try to publish a broader opinion piece on something contemporary. I’m actually working on a long series of posts trying to lay out something of my personal theology, but that’s a really long-term task, so you won’t see anything like that any time soon. I also – and this is the last point, I promise, we’ll talk about the creationists in a minute – I also really want to go through just a bunch of papal decrees and kinda unpack what they were about and what kinda issues they’re relevant to today. That might be something that happens in the future.

Okay! So that’s half my length on the general update – but it’s okay, the creationists don’t take that long to deal with. Let’s get into it.

When you start talking about creationist thought in historical theology, it’s always a little bit dodgy, because historical theologians like Aquinas aren’t really writing with the creationist/evolutionary debate in mind. So it’s very easy to look at someone like Aquinas and write him off as one of those stupid creationists, or for the other side to hold him up as proof that creationism is a long-standing historical idea. And strictly speaking, Aquinas does write like he thinks the creation cycle in Genesis was a literal historical event. He is in the crudest sense a creationist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he would claim kinship with contemporary creationists as we know them today. I think the strongest thing we can say is that Aquinas’s ideas offer support to the contemporary creationist position. I’m really resisting calling him a creationist here because I think it’s kinda akin to calling him a One Direction fan – it’s just not historically appropriate terminology. Plus there’s also room in his thought for evolutionary ideas.

So the questions we’re looking at are 1a.65-74. I’m only going to pick up on a couple points in here, but that’s the spread of questions on creation. 1a.68 is on the second day of creation, and then each other day follows through as an additional question. There’s one funny bit in 1a.70.1 where Aquinas goes ‘Hey if light was created on the first day, why isn’t the sun created until the fourth?’ You can see the quite literal interpretation of the creation cycle here – Aquinas notes that light comes from the sun, and then sort of wonders, well, if light has existed since the first day, where did it come from if the sun didn’t exist? His response to this issue is already kinda telling – he cites Augustine, who reads the light of the first day as a spiritual light, rather than a physical one. Can you see the gaps starting to open up? If the light of the first day isn’t a literal light, but rather a metaphorical spiritual light, what’s to stop other elements of the cycle also being read in a metaphorical way? This is why I don’t want to call Aquinas a creationist – he does go in for the seven day creation, but he’s also not a foaming literalist about it all.

Further, over in 1a.73.1, Aquinas is asking about whether God actually rested on the seventh day. Creation’s technically not complete on the seventh day, right – there’s a bunch of humans that haven’t been born. You and I haven’t been born, right, we weren’t in the Garden with Adam and Eve. So in what sense is creation finished? It seems like there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s yet to come. Well, Aquinas says, “nothing made afterward by God was so new that it had not in some sense been included in the work of the six days.” We might not have been born, but our birth was built into the six days of creation – because God made Adam and Eve and they had kids and eventually you and me turned up. But – now wait a minute, right, pay attention here. According to Aquinas, it’s totally legitimate to say that some things didn’t exist at creation, but rather came later in the process. It therefore wouldn’t be inconsistent to say that maybe humans didn’t exist at the start of the universe, but also came later in the process – through evolution, perhaps. Aquinas actually explicitly makes a biological argument here: mules, he says, are the result of crossing an ass and a mare. Mules didn’t exist within the six days, but all the stuff necessary for them to exist was set in place during that time. From an evolutionary point of view, it therefore seems quite reasonable to say that all the stuff necessary for humans to exist was also set in place during the beginnings of the universe.

There’s other parts of Aquinas’s thought that wouldn’t necessarily gel so easily with evolutionary theory – like I say, he does broadly have a literal interpretation of the seven day creation. Nevertheless, there’s some purchase here for an evolutionary interpretation of certain aspects. Next week, Aquinas’s treatise on the human being.

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